The word “nostalgia” is a compound of two Greek words – νοστοσ (nostos) and αλγοσ (algos). The first is attested in Homer and means “homecoming,” and the second means “pain.” Though it’s often described as a term from classical Greek, it is in fact a more modern term and was apparently coined by one Johannes Hofer, in Basel, in 1688, to describe the homesickness felt by Swiss mercenaries. The term was originally an actual medical diagnosis, and while it was originally thought that only the Swiss were susceptible to it, by the 19th century, it had become generally recognized as a universal human experience – so much so that during the first two years of the American Civil War, 2,588 cases were diagnosed in Union troops, of which 13 were fatal. Even so famously tough a nation as Scotland was not immune; a writer in Penny Magazine, in 1840, noted that, “The bagpipes produced the same effects sometimes in the Scotch regiments while serving abroad.”
It is an amusing factoid that the word is Swiss in origin as, of course, nostalgia casts its aura around much of what makes fine watchmaking in particular, and mechanical horology in general, interesting to us benighted moderns. One quite interesting example in today’s horological landscape is the monopusher chronograph, which remarkably has not only persisted, but has actually developed enough of a following that it can be found in everything from relatively affordable tool watches all the way up to some of the most expensive and complex timepieces in the world.
The monopusher chronograph today is a deliberate anachronism, but at one time, it was the only game in town. I have always found it interesting that chronographs developed so late in horological history – they are as numerous and varied as the stars in the sky and the sands in the ocean nowadays, and their ubiquity has led us to take them more or less for granted. Certainly, as a complication, they have never risen to the exalted status of things like the perpetual calendar or the repeater. But the chronograph as we think of it today – a watch with a stopwatch built into it, which you can start, stop, and reset without stopping the entire watch – is a relatively new innovation.
The inking chronograph of Rieussec, from the 1820s, was successfully miniaturized to pocket watch size (and persisted for a surprisingly long time), but let’s face it, dropping a spot of ink onto a watch dial is always going to have niche appeal at best, and the 1816 compteur de tierces, made by Louis Moinet, while a remarkable machine (it has a cylinder escapement beating at 30Hz which, until the machine appeared at auction in 2012, I would have bet real money was impossible) is not, strictly speaking, a chronograph – it is instead a timer, designed to aid in astronomical observations. The first chronographs capable of start, stop, and reset to zero had to wait until the invention of the heart piece – a heart-shaped cam which, when a flat-faced hammer falls on it, rotates until the lowest point on the cam sits against the hammer; this corresponds to zero on the chronograph seconds register. The heart piece was patented by Adolphe Nicole, in 1844, and the single-button chronograph was born.
The disadvantage to a single pusher is that you cannot stop timing an event, pause, and then restart timing. The sequence is start, stop, and reset, and if you want to time successive intervals, you must stop the chronograph, write down or remember the elapsed time, reset the chronograph, and start it again. This crisis in modern civilization was not addressed until Willy Breitling’s patent of 1934, which was for a modern two-pusher design – the upper for start, stop, and restart, and the lower for reset-to-zero. The 20th century was a time of considerable innovation in chronograph design and produced some interesting mainstream innovations (the automatic chronograph, the cam-and-lever chronograph) as well as some rather oddball notions which have not stood the test of time, including a vertical clutch design consisting of a rubber clutch plate driven by another plate with teeth in it to grab the rubber, which has been, deservedly, consigned to the dustbin of history.
Two-pusher chronographs still far outnumber monopusher designs, for a number of fairly obvious reasons – they are easier to use; they are more practical for timing purposes, and moreover, most chronograph calibers nowadays are two-pusher designs, so making a monopusher chronograph often involves modifying an existing caliber in order to change it to a monopusher configuration. They are generally more expensive than two-pusher chronographs from the same maker, for this reason – and also because they are still niche products despite their increase in popularity in recent years.
Given that they are indisputably practically inferior to two-pusher designs, it is rather remarkable that they have survived at all, much less managed to grow until they constitute a small but steady segment of the larger market for chronographs. But if nostalgia drives interest in and a desire to own a mechanical watch – and I think it indisputably does – then the phenomenon is much easier to understand. A monopusher chronograph is a very resolute and overt statement of a connection to the past, and it firmly roots not only the visual experience of a watch, but also its tactile properties, in watchmaking history. Moreover, there is something very elegant about a monopusher chronograph – a two pusher design always has a faint hint of the pragmatic about it, even at its most elevated levels, which is why I think connoisseurs of rattrapante chronographs have tended to prefer monopusher configurations.
It is amusing to think that nostalgia, which started as a Swiss invention, has become via the watch industry one of its most important exports as well. Though they are less widely produced than their two-pusher brethren, monopusher chronographs create an experience all their own – an elegant kind of watch, for a more civilized age.